Film or digital for a novice?
August 22, 2010 4:56 AM   Subscribe

Do you see any advantages for a photography novice in 2010 in starting out with a 35mm SLR that shoots film of the dipping-in-chemicals-in-a-darkroom variety? I'm toying with taking up photography purely for artistic/pleasure reasons, doubt I'll be taking classes, and would be spending no more than a couple hours a week on this.

A couple years ago I got into drawing and wound up spending a LOT of time on it, more than planned, and saw I had a lot to learn--more time needed than I have to spend to get the (modest!) level of proficiency I want. Photography is something I've always enjoyed in that "oh that snapshot turned out well" way, and I'd like to be able to do more. My goal here isn't becoming a pro photog, or a contest-winning artist. I want to be able to invest a fairly modest amount of time to take photos that will give me pleasure, and that will satisfy my visual arts jones. I like shooting everything from street scenes to architecture to nature to weird/random compositions.

* I'm intrigued by the idea of using pre-digital film cameras of the 35mm variety. i.e. Film, and lacking a zillion on-board computers to do the work for me.
* I want to be able to mess around with settings, either pre-shooting or post-"development" to create interesting images.
* I do not have resources for a darkroom at home.
* My computer does not have Photoshop.
* Investment in camera & lenses probably not more than a couple-few hundred dollars at max, at least for now.

Looks like there are many good Ask questions about how to learn digital, book and website recommendations, how to pick a camera, etc., so I'm most interested in film v. digital, which you think is most rewarding to/forgiving of the novice, and whether you find one more interesting than the other as an artistic medium.
posted by cupcakeninja to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Go digital: since you're learning photography, you will want to iterate quickly: take a shot with combination of shutter speed, aperture, iso, etc., and see the results right after you do it. You learn a lot less quickly if you take the shot, send it to the lab to develop, forget what the light conditions, settings, etc. You also take a lot fewer shots, since the marginal cost of each additional photo is around $0.30 for film, and basically zero for digital. If you're learning, you want to shoot a lot, see the results while you still have a notion of what you did and what's going on with the light around you.

That said, you will want a camera where you have good control over the settings. I would not hurt to pick up a basic photography book: the ones that talk about film will be cheap, and the discussions of aperture, shutter speed, white balance, light conditions, etc., will still be applicable.
posted by chengjih at 5:22 AM on August 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

1. There's a pretty steep learning curve with SLR's and processing your own film in the darkroom. I had friends in college who were studio art majors taking photography courses designed for people who wanted to be pro photographers who wept and gnashed teeth over their work just as much as they would have in a painting or sculpture course. Just getting your shots to actually come out and be in focus and be developed properly is a hurdle.

2. Without having access to a darkroom, it's going to be difficult to go anywhere with this hobby. You would either have to purchase darkroom equipment (probably less expensive than it used to be now that everyone is going digital, but still an investment) or pay for access somewhere - which might be difficult if you don't live in a big city or at least a college town.

3. Unless you have an old one in a closet somewhere, the outlay for an SLR camera isn't going to be any cheaper than a DSLR. Lenses and such are going to cost about the same, for sure. Film, paper, and processing chemicals are also expensive - this is something that's easy to forget in the age of the digital camera. Especially since the secret to good photography is to shoot a lot. 50 or 100 shots on a digital camera are basically free. The same number of prints would probably hurt your wallet just in terms of darkroom hours.

It seems to me that it would be more cost effective, and probably more fun for you, to splurge on a DSLR rather than start from scratch with an SLR and a darkroom.
posted by Sara C. at 5:24 AM on August 22, 2010

Computer storage is cheap, and getting cheaper. The cost to volume value scales well. Less true of film. I appreciate and like the idea of film, but the archival and development requirements are more than I care to take on. Add to that the fact that you're not going to have a darkroom, nor take classes? Everything points to digital except the fact that you want some measure of manual control over the images. If you're okay with doing it post-capture, get gIMP (vs. PShop) and do it that way.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:27 AM on August 22, 2010

If you don't have a darkroom at home, and you're not taking classes, I think it would be very difficult to do anything useful with chemical development. I shoot film and digital but I use a local photography school darkroom so costs are kept to a minimum. Without that I would be exclusively digital.

If you want to explore a camera without all the onboard computers then just turn off all the automated settings.
posted by itsjustanalias at 5:28 AM on August 22, 2010

Best answer: If I were you, I'd get a digital camera first. Taking pictures on them costs nothing, and once you get better at it you can make informed decision about which film camera to buy.

* I'm intrigued by the idea of using pre-digital film cameras of the 35mm variety. i.e. Film, and lacking a zillion on-board computers to do the work for me.
* I want to be able to mess around with settings, either pre-shooting or post-"development" to create interesting images.

If you get a digital camera that can shoot in RAW then you can make all these adjustment yourself rather than having the camera software do it for you. RAW files are often called 'digital negatives' because you have to develop them on your computer to create a usable image. This can be quite a creative camera.

* I do not have resources for a darkroom at home.

You can develop black and white film in a developing tank in your kitchen sink. This can then be scanned in. You don't need a dedicated dark room with this approach. I understand that developing colour film is more complicated.

* My computer does not have Photoshop.

Not a problem. GIMP is a decent free alternative – and if you want software to develop RAW files, then RawTherapee is a good alternative to Adobe Lightroom.
posted by mattn at 5:31 AM on August 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Using film with manual controls will force you to spend your time learning how to get exposure right in a number of circumstances. You'll have a feedback loop that is at least an hour long (if you pay for 1 hour photo). Keeping notes of what you did on each exposure is a good idea in this type of setup.

Unless you rent darkroom time somewhere, you're not going to have any more creativity with the results than you would with digital. In fact, you'll have less.

Ansel Adams did most of his work in the darkroom. He took a lot of time dodging and burning the print, with copious notes and very developed techniques. He wrote a series of 3 books about photography, and print making was one of them. If you want to do film, you really need to do the darkroom well. This is a very expensive proposition these days if you don't have your own darkroom.

If you get a Nikon D40 camera used (the one I use, as recommended by Ken Rockwell), it'll set you back about $400 on Ebay or Amazon. You'll get a camera which has a good manual mode, amazing low light performance, and the whole SLR experience. You can leave it in manual mode, and learn all about exposure, albeit with a much tighter feedback loop (seconds instead of hours!).

You can download GIMP for free, and it's possibly the best photo editing program available. That gives you a platform for editing. You too can dodge, burn and blur in ways that would have Ansel wishing he could try it out, then you can continue and do things impossible to do with film.

Just getting the photo composed and properly lit is a thing you'll be working on for the rest of your life. The post-exposure processing is the other thing you'll be working on as well.

Getting the exposure is just a tiny part of the process, don't let it consume all of your effort.

To summarize this long rambling post:

Digital is far better for the beginner. You get immediate feedback. An exposure costs about 1/2 cent instead of 10 cents, so you are far freer to experiment. You get total control over your print making process, instead of having to spend hours in a darkroom.
posted by MikeWarot at 5:47 AM on August 22, 2010

Best answer: I got started with photography using a film camera. You had to manually set the shutter speed and aperture. I also took darkroom classes and ended up developing only a few photographs I was satisfied with. (Self Flickr link.) I can't imagine learning a darkroom just spending a couple hours a week on photography (including the darkroom and taking photographs).

Using the film camera was a good discipline, and I was very happy with the results. But as mentioned above, you're so disconnected from the results that it's hard to experiment. Anytime I managed to catch action in focus, this was pretty much at random.

The fact that each roll of film was a significant cost was very discouraging.

I really didn't want to use digital because I was worried about the pixelated look. But if your concern is appearance, a good digital camera with Photoshop (which will be less costly, in the end, than what you're talking about doing) will end up looking better since you can crop, fine-tune the brightness/contrast/saturation, etc. If your concern is artistic expression, digital is still probably better because of the spontaneity.

If I could do it again, I'd spend my money on a really good digital camera. I'm proud of myself for learning it the hard way, but it was ridiculously inefficient. This is not just me years later, taking digital cameras for granted and dismissing film out of hand. I remember thinking at the time, even when I was really excited about using the manual film camera: "Hey, I really like these photos, but wow, this is ridiculously inefficient."
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:56 AM on August 22, 2010

Pretty much what everyone else has said: film is expensive, digital lets you take the hundreds of shots you need to get a few really good ones, and it's going to be hard to get going if you don't have access to or a budget for a darkroom.

In terms of budget - dSLRs are sexy, but if they're a little beyond your means take a look at a "super-zoom" camera; you don't get interchangeable lenses, but you get quite a lot of flexibility thanks to the zoom, and some of them do give you the ability to manually set shutter speed and/or aperture, even if it's a little clunkier than it is on an SLR.

I'm totally out of the loop when it comes to current models, but the Canon SX10 IS is the evolution of the camera I've been using pretty happily for the last four years (the S2 IS), and looks quite well reviewed. (In addition to the zoom, it has a great super-macro mode, where you can pretty much focus on the front lens element itself.) My mom has a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ3 that also takes very nice photos. That particular model has a Leica(!) lens - I don't know about newer models.
posted by usonian at 5:56 AM on August 22, 2010

Echoing everyone else here, I'd definitely recommend getting a dSLR, rather than a film SLR.

An interesting restraint to impose on yourself when you start is to buy a smaller memory card than you actually need. For instance, my camera shoots images that are about 20-25mb each and I usually shoot with multiple 8gb cards. (Your image sizes will surely be smaller.) So, I might grab a 512mb card, limiting myself to fewer than 25 pictures. Take only that card when you go out, and force yourself to think about composition and exposure. Come home and look at the images more closely on screen and see what worked and what did not when you have few enough pictures that you remember them all.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:00 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

And invest in Lightroom to catalogue and edit your photos. There's a free trial.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:09 AM on August 22, 2010

Best answer: With film photography, you're essentially talking about three things:

First, you're shooting on film, obviously. This is easy and accessible. You have several choices to make here that differ from digital photography: Black and white vs. color, film speed and film brands will all have a profound impact on the types of photos you get. There's some homework to be done at this level, but you don't have to have a doctorate in photography or anything to figure it all out. And experimenting with different types of film can be very rewarding and a lot of fun.

Second, you have to deal with developing the film. This is a little bit harder, but you DO NOT need a home darkroom to complete this step, and it's not particularly expensive. For developing black and white film, you can purchase the appropriate chemicals and light-tight film canisters, etc., at your local camera shop. With a light-proof bag (found at the camera shop), you can transfer your film to a developing canister and then complete the rest of the development steps in your kitchen or bathroom under normal lighting conditions. The steps for developing black and white film are basic chemistry. It's a matter of chemicals, timing and water temperature. Essentially you follow a development "recipe" that results in film negatives. Two caveats here: While you can learn how to develop film on your own, it would be greatly helpful to have somebody whose done it before walk you through the process the first couple of times. And color film is a different story. Unless you're a pro, you're unlikely to be developing it in your own home because of the more-complicated development nature. Furthermore, many photographers--amateur and pro--drop their film off at a lab for development. Developing your own film can be a lot of fun, but it doesn't make you any less of a film photographer if you let someone else develop the film for you.

Third, you'll want to get prints from your negatives, which traditionally requires darkroom work. You've indicated that you don't have the resources for a home darkroom, so I'll spare you too many details of this step, but if you're interested in darkroom work, there are still many places--often on college campuses--that rent darkroom time to the public. But if that's not an option, you can also get prints made from your negatives at a lab. Or, you can have your photo lab scan your negatives into digital images, and viola! You can get digital versions of your film shots and print them on a photo printer in your own home.

The point that I'd reiterate here is that delving into film photography can be as easy or complicated as you want it to be. On the easiest end, it's as simple as popping film into your camera, shooting a roll and then dropping your film off at a photo shop for development and prints. On the hardest end, it's as complicated as setting up a darkroom in your home and doing everything from scratch.

In this digital age, I think film still has a lot to offer photographers. First, a film-based print from a wet darkroom just has look and a texture that isn't easy for a digital camera and print to replicate. But equally as important, shooting with film can help to make you a better photographer. With film, you don't have the luxury of firing off a hundred shots and hoping two or three are correctly exposed. Film forces you to slow down and think about your exposure and shutter speed and composition. These are important fundamentals for digital and film photographers alike. Shooting on film will make you a better photographer. Digital is much more forgiving than film, but unfortunately, digital photography also makes it all too easy to get sloppy.

And did I mention that shooting film is a lot of fun? You can certainly get started in the price range you listed. Used film cameras and lenses can be plucked off of eBay at great prices. If I were you, I'd give it a try and see how you like it!
posted by TBoneMcCool at 6:19 AM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing the recommendation to start with digital. I started out with film by necessity (digital cameras didn't exist yet, at least not at the consumer level) -- it *was* a great learning experience, one which I profited from in the long run, but it was laborious and frustrating. It was a wonderful feeling to pull a good finished print out of the tray, but I had to go through a LOT of trial and error before I could both reliably shoot good negatives and get good results from them in the darkroom... meanwhile, my learning process was racking up a small fortune in chemicals, film, equipment, etc. (And for all I know, traditional equipment might be more expensive than ever these days, in response to digital's dominance.) If nothing else, starting out digitally would have let me develop (ta-ta-boom) much more *cheaply* as a photographer, to say nothing of more easily.

If you decide you're serious about photography, though, I'd definitely recommend working on film down the road (especially medium format or up if you can manage it) -- for some of us, there's still a certain beauty to the silver grain that can't quite be caught in digital. Once you've done a LOT of shooting and have gotten to the point where you feel that you can reliably get what shots you need -- including full manual setting of the aperture, shutter and ISO for any situation, without relying on the camera to do it for you -- *then* is the time to think about trying film. Best wishes to you, though, whichever way you go.
posted by Noah at 6:29 AM on August 22, 2010

Aww, I weep for the analog age. While everyone here has made some pretty good points, I think you should go ahead and try out the SLR yo. I assume you're talking about black & white photography? The above arguments are valid if you don't have an easily accessible dark room. Your best bet is to find some club or school that sells dark room time or the like. Too expensive and complicated to set up your own.

I was lucky because my school had a 24/7 available dark room for studio majors. The learning curve is steep, but if you're doing EVERYTHING, and by that I mean developing your film, exposing your own prints with an enlarger (i.e SEXY BESELERS FROM THE TURN OF THE CENTURY) in addition to developing your own prints, you'll start to get an intuitive sense of what will or won't work. Because the users above are right, if you just send every roll in to be developed, you'll be completely disconnected from the process.

Some people hate the slowness of printing, but I luuuuuv it. Five hours can go by like nothing. It's so much fun when you dip the print in the developer and wait for the image to seep through the paper like a ghost. SO COOL. Never gets old. You'll eventually pick up on which contrast filter would work best with your negative, how much exposure time to give, etc. But it can be pretty annoying because you'll quickly become a perfectionist, and photo paper is NOT CHEAP.
posted by hellomina at 6:35 AM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

(btw you can MeFi mail me if you want to talk about it more)
posted by hellomina at 6:36 AM on August 22, 2010

Best answer: I'm going to go against the grain and say that you have the right idea starting with 35mm.

1) You can get very good quality equipment very cheap. I picked up a Cannon AE-1 body and a mint 50mm fixed lens for about $50 from a used camera store. Additional beautiful Canon FD lenses that used to be way out of my price range can now be purchased at a reasonable used price from ebay or used equipment stores. Whether you shoot digital or analog, good quality lenses make a HUGE difference in the quality of the final product.

2) Film is a finite resource, and will help you concentrate on composition. You will be forced to think more about what you're shooting, and evaluate everything before you press the button. Some people call this a limitation, I call it focus. The only time I pull out my DSLR these days is for events (weddings or similar) where I need to take a gazillion photos and edit later.

3) You will be forced to learn and really understand what the manual settings on your camera do. This is actually not all that hard... really. I started taking pictures with my father's SLR camera at when I was 13, with minimal instruction - just a book from the library. If I could get the hang of it, I'm sure you can. It doesn't take long to learn the principles of photography and how to use them to your advantage.

4) Exposure is actually pretty easy. There is a light meter built in to most decent SLR cameras, which reads the average light value of the frame. You can use this as a guide to start, and see immediate change in the light meter reading when you open up the aperture (f stop) or change the shutter speed. When you gain more confidence, try to ignore the meter and just use the exposure value to find your settings.

5) Developing. When I get film developed, I ask for the negatives and a contact sheet only. I print only the shots that I want. If you save a bunch of money by getting an analog camera, you can think about getting a photo scanner that can scan the negatives directly. I have a Cannoscan 8400f that does a pretty good job of it.

I think it has to do with growing up on the cusp of the "digital age"... but I was always taught that you should "learn to walk before you learn to run". I find it useful to understand the analog principles that digital was based on. If you get a DSLR, you'll still need to know about exposure, depth-of-field, shutter speed... all that.

When you think about it, a whole load of R&D went into "improving" digital photography in the past 10 years... so it could look more like analog. I'm not sure how far they've come in the last little while, but an entry-level DSLR may be less forgiving than film in certain areas -- under exposed images tend to have digital artifacting, and adjusting the manual f-stop and shutter controls may be more cumbersome on a DSLR (which was designed more for consumer point-and-shoot photography), than the adjusting simple dials on an analog camera.
posted by kaudio at 6:40 AM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I shoot both film and digital, and, while I enjoy the former, I would still be reluctant to recommend it as a point of departure unless you plan on shooting mostly black & white, and/or you plan on shooting lots of very long exposures and/or you just happen to like old cameras and/or you want to play around with medium-format photography without spending a fortune.

It would be like recommending someone getting into music to buy only vinyl: sure it can be better than digital in certain specific cases, but more often than not the newer format is preferable overall.

One way to proceed might be to get a digital SLR that is compatible with film SLR lenses: for example, after getting my dSLR (a Nikon D80), I bought a 2ndhand Nikon F80, and was able to share lenses between them. For a little more outlay you thereby get some of the best of both worlds.
posted by misteraitch at 7:08 AM on August 22, 2010

Have a little fun with film now, before it is all discontinued. Develop your first and last roll of Kodachrome before you can never again do it after the end of this year.

Then you can turn into an old salt and complain about the good old days; it's very cathartic.
posted by thejoshu at 7:11 AM on August 22, 2010

Apples & Oranges have a bunch of articles comparing film vs digital.

You could start with a film camera and get prints processed, then once you want to post process more, get a scanner. From there you can start to bulk load your own film and process it yourself in a changing bag, for Black and White you only need 3 chemicals, it's pretty easy. 100ft of bulk film is about 20 rolls of 36 exposures.
posted by Lanark at 7:17 AM on August 22, 2010

I can't think of a single thing you will learn about photography itself by using film as a medium that you wouldn't get through digital photography. Plus, there are many downsides in terms of cost and time-to-lesson. Learning with film takes longer and the results are more variable. Early on, you'll never know if your exposure was off for a roll or if you just didn't shake or time the developer properly. Getting consistent is costly and none of it will help you become a better photographer, just a better film processor and printer.
posted by stp123 at 7:27 AM on August 22, 2010

*Even if you are are using a digital camera, there won't be a zillion computers doing the work for you, especially if you use a setting other thanauto or program.
*Shooting digital RAW is ideal for this.
*You already have a computer, which can act as your digital dark room.
*There are free programs like GIMP. Photoshop Elements is around $99. If you are a student, Aperture 3 or Lightroom 3 can be had for under a $100. Any of those products would suit your needs.
*Film and cheap do not go together. In fact, it is just the opposite. The only exception is you can find a film camera cheap. It won't take long and your savings will be eaten by the cost of film and exposure.

You are asking a question that was a debate for many years. When digital was in its infancy, yes, you could get better pictures from film. Now? Not hardly. Unless you want to make learning photography as difficult as it can be, or you are absolutely in love with the process of developing film in your own darkroom, there is no reason to use film.
posted by Silvertree at 7:34 AM on August 22, 2010

Regardless of which you chose, get an OFF Camera flash, and learn about lighting. See the beautiful examples in the Strobist group on Flickr.
posted by MikeWarot at 7:52 AM on August 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you, MeFites. This has given me plenty to think about, and ideas about how to go down either road in the most economical fashion. At this point, I expect that I'll either save up or ask for a DSLR as a gift, and try to cadge a 35mm film camera. Between friends and family, I know of at least a couple floating around that haven't been out of the closet since digital point-n-shoots were acquired. I really appreciated hearing about this from people with different takes on the issue!

(Marked as "answered," but of course happy for other input!)
posted by cupcakeninja at 7:53 AM on August 22, 2010

* I'm intrigued by the idea of using pre-digital film cameras of the 35mm variety. i.e. Film, and lacking a zillion on-board computers to do the work for me.

Starting out on 35mm is a bit quixotic in this day and age, but what's wrong with quixotic? It's what you want to do, so you don't need to justify it further.

However, you should be aware that any DSLR nowadays is perfectly usable on manual mode, and there are no fancy computers getting in your way unless you want them to. I just about never use the bells and whistles on my DSLR; my shooting process is very close to how I work with my film SLR. The only real difference is that I can delete dud shots before they ever even hit my computer.

* I want to be able to mess around with settings, either pre-shooting or post-"development" to create interesting images.

What settings? I thought you didn't like bells and whistles. Do you mean messing around with different kinds of film and filters? Be aware that to have much creative control over your film images, you are going to need to print on your own. This means renting darkroom time or building a home darkroom. This means blowing a lot of money on photo paper.

I like both film and digital, but digital has the edge here, especially if you're on a budget. Any experimentation you do in the darkroom is going to be time-consuming and expensive in the long run - this is worth it if you enjoy yourself in a darkroom, but not necessarily advantageous over doing things digitally.

* I do not have resources for a darkroom at home.

If you want a darkroom, you'll have to either buy one for yourself or rent time at one. Be aware that developing and printing color at home is probably much too expensive for you.

* My computer does not have Photoshop.

GIMP is free and Photoshop can be bought. Photoshop Elements is cheap and does pretty much everything a hypothetical home darkroom could do.

My Rebel XSi came with a perfectly workable free RAW editor, as well.

* Investment in camera & lenses probably not more than a couple-few hundred dollars at max, at least for now.

Film cameras are cheap, but that's in large part because people don't want them. I like film, don't get me wrong, but film is MORE expensive in the long run. Any money you save today by buying a film camera for $50 will be moot by this time next year, as you'll be spending money on film, development, scanning, darkroom equipment or time, photo paper, etc.

So. Let's say you have $700 to spend.

If I were you, I'd grab a used Pentax K-x with the kit lens for $500. It's a terrific camera for the money, and it takes K mount lenses. This means you can get terrific glass for cheap and that you can share your lenses with K mount film cameras.

Buy a Pentax MX for butt-cheap off of eBay. I'm seeing a deal right now with an MX plus four lenses for $100. That's ridiculous.

Set aside $100 for film costs and knock yourself out. Develop and scan your 35mm shots. Edit everything in GIMP, or save up for Photoshop. I'm not sure what RAW software the Pentax comes with - I don't own one myself - but I know that my Canon camera came with a perfectly usable suite of programs.

I would learn your basics by starting on the DSLR, and then move on to the film SLR after I had figured out the basics of shooting manually. Switch between both as desired and enjoy.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:36 AM on August 22, 2010

Although I shoot almost exclusively digital now, I've very glad that I learned photography using film equipment. There are definitely advantages to both.

Film photography, because you can't see the image immediately after taking a picture, helps develop one's eye and a knack for preconceiving the image you want. There are also more surprises with film, and it can be exciting in that way - there is nothing like developing photos in a darkroom, and that process can be creative in itself. Film equipment also makes it easier to understand the mechanics of what is happening and how the camera works. Try building a pinhole camera!

With digital photography, on the other hand, I really enjoy the speed with which I can work with my photos after shooting, and the inexpensiveness of shooting hundreds of images. Digital has made me much better at editing my work (since I usually have so many images to choose from). It's definitely much more forgiving for beginners, since you can see your photo immediately and keep shooting until you get what you want.

You can get great film cameras for really cheap right now, and film processing is still widely available; I'd suggest trying both film and digital if you can. Even though I shoot mostly digital now, I still love playing around with toy film cameras like Holgas and Lomos; maybe you would enjoy those, too.
posted by oulipian at 8:51 AM on August 22, 2010

I think at this point its becoming more and more like a apple and oranges comparison. I'd say the answer lies in where you might find the satisfaction, the joy in all of this. I do both, but one is more out of necessity than desire. I'm a process junkie, I like the physical aspects of film and, how the process is more drawn out.

I'm not sure there is a safe way to know for sure without some dabbling, both are going to need money, time, commitment and, even some of that evil W word (work) to get any good at it.

Unless you rent darkroom time somewhere, you're not going to have any more creativity with the results than you would with digital. In fact, you'll have less.

I think that very much depends on what you know is possible with photography. If you think about it outside the box a bit and, move away from thinking about it in terms of a traditional darkroom set up you can, without much space or cost, make prints with overhead transparency film and a ink jet printer using an alternative process. And, there are number of creative things that can be done in camera without additional processing like bleach bypass or, cross processing the film.
posted by squeak at 9:07 AM on August 22, 2010

What Sticherbeast said. I got the jewel-like Pentax MX with the tiny 40mm pancake lens for under $200 last year.
posted by scruss at 9:38 AM on August 22, 2010

Film imposes constraints that tend to slow you down to be extra careful with framing and exposure. Those can be great habits to have, but with a bit of discipline, you can get there with digital as well, and you get the benefit of a faster feedback cycle.

I spent several years bulk loading film and doing my own developing and printing. The part I regret are the solitary hours/evenings/weekends spent in the darkroom. While necessary for the art, there's a social trade-off. Looking back, I really wish that I'd spent that time with friends and developing new friendships.
posted by dws at 9:57 AM on August 22, 2010

Even though I shoot mostly digital now, I still love playing around with toy film cameras like Holgas and Lomos; maybe you would enjoy those, too.

Incidentally, bringing this up reminds me that many medium format cameras - not just Holgas - are insanely cheap nowadays. For $150 you can get a Yashica-Mat 124G, which can take amazing images. A Pentax 645 system costs more, but offers more flexibility.

I'd get a grip on the basics of photography before going medium format, but don't dismiss it out of hand. In my opinion, it presents a more compelling alternative to have alongside a DSLR, as MF's strengths and weaknesses are more pronounced than with a 35mm comparison. Medium format's image quality will blow a Canon 5D2 or equivalent out of the water.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:18 AM on August 22, 2010

Starting out on 35mm is a bit quixotic in this day and age, but what's wrong with quixotic?

The $1/shot price tag is what's wrong with it.

Film is for people who know how to use film; get a decent entry-level DSLR and a prime lens, learn to use a camera first, then learn how to use film. It's fun and rewarding, don't get me wrong, but in this modern age it's a _terrible_ place to start.
posted by mhoye at 11:56 AM on August 22, 2010

Last year I bought a Pentax K-1000 in GoodWill (with its pretty good normal lens) for twenty bucks.

The difference in price between film- and digital SLRs will buy you a LOT of film and processing.

You can get Fujicolor 200-24s for less than $2/roll at Walmart. Target will develop a roll overnight for 95 cents. That's 12 cents a frame to see how you're doing. A hundred bucks will pay for your first 30 rolls of film, which should get you well through your 'student' phase.

A home darkroom - not an enlarger (which you can probably scavenge for free these days) - but just a tank and film reels, some measuring cups, some chemistry - will let you develop your own B&W film for fifty bucks or so. (However, B&W film is now comically more expensive than color film.) A hundred dollar negative scanner will get you a digital image.

So, yeah, film photography is certainly cheap enough to play around with for a while, and it is still a valid way to teach yourself photography.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 12:24 PM on August 22, 2010

Depends, Cupcake, on what you want to learn and what you want to do.

If you want to learn how and why to do all the things an automated digital does for your -- exposure, shutter speed, etc. -- then a manual film camera will force you to learn. While you can put digital cameras in Manual mode, setting the aperture and the shutter speed manually is often cumbersome. On a classic manual film camera, it's a matter of turning a couple knobs.

You say you lack the resources for a darkroom. But, you can process film, i.e., develop to the negative stage, at a kitchen or bathroom sink without worrying about blacking out all the windows. Black and white processing is especially easy. Once you have the negatives, you can use them to create prints (an enlarger and a room that is dark is needed for that) or you can scan them and manipulate them on a computer. (You don't need Photoshop for that. Photoshop Elements does everything a beginner or intermediate photographer wants and sells for under $100. Photo sites like Flickr and Picasa offer free photo processing software of surprising usefulness.

You should be aware that digital printing turns out excellent prints. (Printing, film or digital, is a craft that must be learned.) However, your investment is likely to be greater in that quality printers and ink are not free or cheap

You can buy a good and perfectly usable film SLR and a lens within your price range. I don't know of a DSLR that sells for a couple hundred bucks. Film camera are a mature technology. You can buy a camera that is twice your age and, if it is in good condition, use it for years.

Bottom line: If you want a camera that allows you to focus on the basics of photography, get a film camera that allows you to set aperture and shutter speed. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g else that any digital camera does is just an automated way of dealing with those two variables. There are no other variables for a camera.
posted by justcorbly at 3:56 PM on August 22, 2010

Cupcake, I recommend a site called for used camera purchases, film or digital. They're in Atlanta. They have a very good reputation. Visit them after you've done some research into what camera you're after.

Few new film camera remain on the market, especially SLR's. I can think of the Nikon F6, which is as automated as any DSLR and sells for around $2,000. Nikon also sells the FM-10, a basic manual film SLR made for them by a third party. Sells new for aorund $300. A fine camera to learn with. Some dealers also still have the Nikon F100 in stock, a fine and less automated camera that sells new for about $750. Also widely available used.

Rangefinder cameras are also worth exploring. A Leica is a rangefinder, pretty expensive. A Japanese company markets a line of rangefinders and lenses under the Voightlander name. I have one of their camera and several lenses. The oly automated option they offer is "aperture priority", i.e., you pick the aperture, the camera picks the shutter speed. Many rangefinder camera with a fixed lens (meaning you can't change, or need to buy, the lenses) are available on the used market for very good prices and offer an excellent learning platform.
posted by justcorbly at 4:08 PM on August 22, 2010

And, BTW, you do not need to buy or rent a darkroom. As long as you have runing water and a way to to temporarily black out the windows and the crack in the doors, you have a darkroom. Lots of people use a bathroom. Enlargers in good shape are available dirt cheap or free. The cost isn't the long pole, it's developing the skills and getting the experinece.

Digital printering has a comparable skills and experience curve. And digital printers that can compete with analog printing carry a 4-figure price tag. The cost of ink to feed them easily matches the recurring cost of film.
posted by justcorbly at 4:14 PM on August 22, 2010

I used a SLR over the weekend and I really enjoyed the experience. I took my time setting up shots and once I took the photo I couldn't check it on a screen or try and redo. It was just done. I also used a DSLR and it was very sexy and fun to use but I felt more creative using the SLR. Others would feel differently I'm sure.
posted by latch24 at 5:13 AM on August 23, 2010

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